For almost a century Lancashire’s professional footballers would play on Christmas Day and Boxing Day. Local historian Keith Johnson looks back at a festive tradition from the history books of the game
For decades in Lancashire, one of the highlights of Christmas was the festive football fixtures, particularly those played on Christmas Day.
Often, in those days before computer generated fixture lists, the seasonal matches threw together Lancashire derby matches which added to the excitement.
From the early days of organised football, Preston North End ventured on to the field of play on Christmas Day.
On December 25, 1882, 700 spectators gathered at Deepdale to witness a 3-2 victory over Lower Darwen. The following year, on a heavy Deepdale pitch, they entertained Walsall Swifts.
More than 9,000 paid for admission and they saw a tough encounter won 3-1. In 1884 the Walsall Swifts once again provided Christmas Day opposition, with 9,000 spectators once more attending and PNE winning 3-0.
Back in 1885, afternoon visitors to the Deepdale Enclosure were the illustrious Blackburn Rovers, who attracted a record crowd of 17,000 paying £200 for the privilege.
So congested was the ground that the barriers gave way before kick-off and the police struggled to keep the touchlines clear. On a number of occasions play had to be halted due to crowd encroachment in the intimidating atmosphere.
As dusk fell the game ended with North End the victors by 1-0, thanks to a volley from Fred Dewhurst.
A year later Bolton Wanderers visited Deepdale and two special trains from Bolton helped to swell the crowd to 10,000. North End fielded their strongest English Cup team and reports later described it as a perfect performance from Preston as they won by 12-1. “Hats off to PNE,” shouted the Bolton fans and the visitors left shell-shocked, but with £130 in their coffers as their share of the receipts.
Alas, the joy was short lived because on Boxing Day a train trip to West Bromwich Albion was followed by a 5-1 defeat on a snow-covered pitch before 12,000 spectators. Too much Christmas pudding was one excuse.
In 1887 Christmas Day fell on the Sabbath so football was out of the question. Nonetheless, PNE had plenty of festive football with Scotland’s great club Queens Park at Deepdale on Christmas Eve for a 7-2 beating watched by a 8,000 crowd, Walsall Swifts being thrashed 8-0 on Boxing Day and a trip to Wolverhampton Wanderers the next day seeing PNE win 3-1.
A happier Christmas for James Trainer, the Bolton goalkeeper of 12 months earlier, who was enjoying life
between the sticks for PNE.
Preston North End’s first Christmas Day league fixture took place in 1889 when Aston Villa were beaten at Deepdale by 3-2. For three years from 1893 Stoke were the Christmas Day visitors to Deepdale, finally lowering the North End colours in 1895 with a 1-0 away win witnessed by 7,000 spectators.
On Christmas Day 1902 a Glasgow Rangers side, packed with Scottish internationals, visited Deepdale.
On a cold,blustery afternoon 5,000 hardy souls watched PNE earn a 2-1 victory in a match that finished seven minutes early due to the gathering gloom.
One of the familiar opponents at Christmas time in the decade that followed were Blackburn Rovers and, at Christmas 1913 Rovers, champions elect, exposed the gulf in class between the two sides with a 5-0 win at Ewood Park on Christmas Day, when PNE lost Charlie McFadyen with a broken leg, and a 5-1 victory at Deepdale on Boxing Day on a mud bath of a pitch, watched by more than 20,000 rain-soaked spectators.
Before the First World War football had become well established as a major Christmas entertainment, but the outbreak of hostilities curtailed that.
However, for the 1915 - 16 season, a number of regional divisions were created. Due to the nature of the situation clubs had to field makeshift teams due to calls of duty.
On Christmas Day they entertained high flying Stockport County at Deepdale. It was heavy going for both sides and the visitors won 1-0. Preston struggling after they lost Gunner Williams, on leave from the Royal Field Artillery, with a broken arm.
The PNE side had fought valiantly, cheered on by a Christmas crowd of 5,060, with gate receipts of £116.
On Boxing Day another crowd of 5,000 turned up at Deepdale to see North End taken on a Munitions XI made up of local munition workers and former PNE players. North End, with the wind and rain at their backs, racing into a 5-0 interval lead. In the second half further goals eluded them and the Munition team gained a hearty cheer when Charles McFadyen netted for them.
Despite a 5-1 defeat the charity team was pleased with its efforts and more than £100 was destined for good causes, including the Moor Park Military hospital. The fund-raising efforts continued and, in 1917 on Christmas Day, it was the turn of the ladies to entertain the crowds at Deepdale when 10,000 fans turned up to see the munition workers of Dick, Kerr’s Ladies play against their counterparts of Coulthards and raise more than £500 for charity. Two goals from Miss Rance completed the scoring in a 4-0 victory for Dick, Kerr’s.
After the First World War it became North End’s policy to request an away fixture on Christmas Day. Consequently, throughout the 1920s, the North End played all their Christmas Day fixtures away, visiting Blackburn Rovers four times, Hull City, South Shields and Bury.
The club’s preference to play away on Christmas Day continued in the 1930s, starting with two visits to Burnley, then train trips to Brentford and Arsenal, then Brentford again, followed once more by Arsenal, and then in 1937 an exhausting trip to Portsmouth, where they lost 3-2.
That particular Christmas Day was shrouded by fog, with the LEP’s illustrator Furnival among the crowd at Blackpool for their clash with Arsenal. Blackpool earned a surprising 2-1 victory, although Furnival claimed ‘he had not the foggiest idea how they achieved it’, watched by a 30,000 crowd.
During that decade the LEP’s football correspondent Walter Pilkington travelled with the official PNE party on their many long journeys. In later life he recalled a Christmas Eve fixture at Southampton in 1932, which North End lost 0-1, on which occasion he was to have dined with the team as they ate a post-match Christmas dinner. Unfortunately, he got separated from the party in the post-match press melee and had to dine alone with a cold pork pie as he waited on a freezing railway station.
After the Second World War, when the Football League resumed in 1946, PNE were off to Stamford Bridge to play Chelsea in a match they won 2-1, with goals from Tom Finney and Jackie Wharton, and playing vital roles were Andy Beattie, Bobby Beattie and Bill Shankly, who had played in that pre-war fixture against Portsmouth.
Christmas Day trips to Burnley and Charlton followed and in 1950 the new decade opened with a visit to Queens Park Rangers, where Charlie Wayman hit all four goals as PNE won 4-1.
Burnley entertained PNE in 1951, 1953, 1954 and 1956 and they all were all hard fought matches at Turf Moor. The Christmas Day meeting of 1954 reflected the fighting spirit of North End, who recovered from a 2-0 deficit to earn a 2-2 draw, thanks to a brace from Denis Hatsell.
In 1957 North End were sent over the Pennines to play Sheffield Wednesday. It turned into a tale of two Finneys, with Tom Finney scoring twice for PNE and Alan Finney netting twice for the Owls in a thrilling 4-4 draw.
Before the curtain was drawn on their Christmas Day fixtures, North End had only a short trip to Blackpool to contend with in 1958. It wasn’t the best of experiences, with PNE losing by 4-2 watched by more than 24,000, hardly a tangerine dream despite two goals from Tommy Thompson.
A year later the only Christmas Day fixture played was held at Ewood Park, where Blackburn Rovers beat Blackpool 1-0. In the return match on Boxing Day Blackpool won 1-0.
In December 1960 two classic Lancashire derbies took place on Christmas Day. With Blackburn Rovers winning 1-0 at Ewood Park against Blackpool and hosts Everton slipping to a 2-0
defeat against Burnley.
In 1961 there were no Christmas Day games and none in 1962 as a Christmas of ice, snow and fog led to numerous postponed matches, although Preston did manage to play at Deepdale on Boxing Day as 8,700 shivering spectators saw goals from Alston, Spavin, Dawson and Holden in a 4-2 victory over Portsmouth. A year later the action was confined to Boxing Day, with Blackburn Rovers going to the top of the Football League with an astonishing 8-2 win away at West Ham United in the morning of a day PNE won 4-0 at Cardiff with a hat-trick from Dave Wilson.
In 1964, a Christmas Day fixture blank was followed by a Boxing Day bonanza, with North End beating Coventry City 3-2 with a brace from Howard Kendall on a frostbound Deepdale pitch watched by more than 22,000.
The days of Football League Christmas Day action came to an end in 1965 when Blackpool entertained Blackburn Rovers in the top flight. More than 20,000 witnessing a 4-2 win for the Tangerines who brought the curtain down on the Christmas Day action nationally.